A Practical Guide to Wandering

It was the windowsill flower boxes that got me. Their geraniums popped with delicious vibrance, the last brush strokes on a street whose shops and floors and sidewalks hugged you, the way only very old things do. The cozy scent of French bread and cappuccinos lingered among bike bells and toddler giggles. People and dogs sat lazily on lawn chairs, soaking in the sun. I must have accidentally walked into a Renoir.

This was Regents Park Road in central London, and I had wandered into it. Instantly, I was mesmerized. It had this beautiful balance of perfection and realism, of charm and practicality, of community and privacy. I didn’t take a single photo — it seemed wrong to disrupt the quaint silence with a shutter click. I didn’t need a picture; I wouldn’t forget this place.

Something else happened here: London became my own. No guidebook had led me here; instead, I was another beat in the pulse of London’s veins, exploring its secrets and subject to its serendipity. I was seeing unfiltered, unashamed London — not the well-groomed front it put up for acquaintances, but its occasionally mundane, sometimes lonely, often grungy, sometimes surreally beautiful inner workings.

That is why I wander.

Explorers use maps, not itineraries

Romantic as walking around blindly for days in hopes of discovering the vast local treasures may sound, it’s not too practical to leave your vacation solely up to chance. So how do you wander without wasting your time?

  1. Do some research and pick a handful of must-see attractions, and put them on a map. I prefer Google Maps’ Custom Maps feature, which lets you pin locations, make notes, categorize, and save areas for offline use.

2. Note the days/hours of operation for each item and any other useful tidbits you might want to remember (e.g. free tours or exhibits you don’t want to miss). Don’t sweat the details too much — you want to leave plenty of room for spontaneity. I will usually stop researching a site as soon as I decide I want to see it; I’ll learn more about it when I get there.

3. As you add pins to your map, look for the rough geographic midpoint or areas equidistant from most of the sites. This is where, ideally, you should book your hotel.

4. Look for patterns. For instance, above, there are 4 distinct, major directions from central London, along which most of the places I was interested in are located; these were the paths I took. Look up a few routes to get a sense of scale: which distances are walkable and which will require public transit? Look up the subway and bus systems, and use them — a metro card will free you from the hassles and costs of a taxi, and give you a great look at local life.

That’s it. Now, get excited and get on that flight.

Planning spontaneity

You’ve arrived — awesome! Time to pick a direction and go with it.

Every morning, look at your map and pick one of the farthest must-see sights; head towards it (or take transit there and head back). Pass other sights as you go along, but also meander and circumvent. Every night, check off where you’ve been and add new places you discovered.

The art of wandering

Explore. Look around — look up at the tops of buildings, at people’s faces, at the little details of historical signs and cracked sidewalks. Be present. Soak it all in, in the way only someone with no particular place to go could. Leisure.

Take photos in moderation. Pay attention, so your memories are vibrant enough that you don’t need them.

Be curious. Turn corners; follow smells. Take the scenic route.

Understand, truly, what it means to be about the journey. Relax at the simplicity of it all. Let time be irrelevant, and it will slow down to a pace you’ve long forgotten: the sticky molasses ticking of your childhood.